Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Life and Death of a Math Camp

I’ve been reading a lot of Harry Potter lately. (Like I said before, it’s all Holley’s fault.) (Don’t worry, I’m almost done.) I think I totally get why every teacher I know loves that series. Because it taught our kids to love reading, right? Riiiight.

No, really it’s because the series is all about life in school, inside politics, and other related wonderful things. I would know, because I’ve had some exposure. The fifth book, in particular, brought back the memories. You know, the one where the school hires a new teacher, who very soon gets herself promoted to Great Inquisitor and, shortly afterwards, to headmistress? Thing is, I knew that woman. I worked for that woman. And, in the end, she fired me.

I hope I don’t bring bad karma upon myself writing this, as the woman in question has already passed away – about fifteen years ago, in fact. But, I can’t resist. This is just too good of a story to pass up. Naturally, I will not use the woman’s real name. I’ll just call her Mrs. Umbridge.

This story started (for me) in 1980, when my friend and I won, respectively, second and first place on our local math Olympiad. A month later, we both received in the mail application forms for a summer math school. My friend tossed hers in the garbage; I filled mine out. It turned out to be the best summer I’d had yet.

I didn’t fit in well at normal summer camps. Truth be told, I was nerdy, weird, and had very strange hobbies. I fit right in at the math camp. There were dozens of kids just like me. To this day, I fondly refer to the place as the “nerd sanctuary”. It was organized and ran by students, post-grad students, and teachers of the St-Petersburg (Russia) University, math department. We had classes every morning, and some kind of activity each night. Either it was a concert, where one of our counselors played a guitar and sang, with all of us singing along; or it could be a lecture on the paranormal; or a “Miss and Mr.” contest; or who knows what else. After twenty-five years, my memory isn’t what it used to be, so I cannot tell you what else there was.

Socially detached though I was, I couldn’t help noticing the free atmosphere in the camp. Freethinking was encouraged; no one tried pushing any kind of ideology down our throats. That was a nice change from the regular pioneer camps that I used to go to. Unfortunately, the math classes turned out to be over my head. I guess, being a person of many talents, my prowess is kind of limited in each *wink*

The camp was rather run-down, located in an old building in the countryside (Try to imagine a boarding school for severely learning disabled kids in Russia in 1980. That was where we were stationed.) In fact, it moved to a different location each year. Again, I was 13 and living in my own world, but, from what I understood, the students and the few teachers that ran the camp, were not connected enough to keep it running smoothly. The camp was constantly under the threat of being shut down by the authorities. In fact, the following year, in 1981, to my utter devastation, there wasn’t any camp at all. It reconvened in ’82, and I went back. ’83 was a very good year, and my last as a student, as I graduated in ’84. In ’84, the camp was conveniently located a short distance from my hometown, and I visited a lot, along with my friends (I think one of the guys from my year just parked himself in the 16yo guys’ room, and stayed there for the entire 25 days of camp.) The summer of ’85, I spent working at a construction site with my fellow students, and I sucked at it. Never hire me to dig anything around your house or to lay concrete, I will mess it up miserably. Apparently, I don’t know how to hold a shovel. Not that it interfered with my future career in any way.

Did I mention that I went to school at the St-Petersburg University, math department?

In ’86, on my way from one class to another, I saw a flyer in the hallway inviting students to sign up for work in the Summer Mathematics School. That’s right, the same camp. I got all excited, and came to the meeting. Imagine my surprise when I was greeted by Mrs. Umbridge. Not that I hadn’t met her before, but now she was the camp director.

We first met Mrs. Umbridge in ’82, when she stopped by the camp for a two- or three-day visit. It was a medium-height, stocky woman with her hair in a tight bun and an air of authority around her. Not that we cared. We were too busy having fun and getting crushes on one another. She visited every class; we yawned through her speech, wherein she introduced her math correspondence school, of which she was a principal; and she left.

In ’83, Mrs. Umbridge came back to the camp, to recruit more kids into her correspondence school, and to invite the best students on a ten-day trip/seminar to Tbilisi, (Russian) Georgia. My name somehow ended up on the list; the trip was awesome. Well, except for the part where I had to use a barf bag on an Aeroflot aircraft while sitting next to my crush. Oh, well, the guy was in love with my best friend anyway. She was on the same trip. We were in camp together three times, but, unlike me, she was very pretty and very popular. We had a good friendship, except for one thing – each year in camp, I’d develop a crush on a guy in our group, confess it to her, then, two weeks later, she’d somehow be dating the guy.

I think she owes me a finder’s fee or something.

But I digress.

To be continued...

This is the geekiest picture I have of me. It was taken in 1981.

This one is from 1986, when I started my work in camp as a counselor. I'll try to find some pix from the actual camp tonight.

The Goldie has spoken at 9:03 AM

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